My Picture of Young Adult Oppression and Liberation

For four years I was the International Liberation Reference Person (ILRP) for Young Adults. I had the chance to build relationships with young adults in many places in the world, counsel people on oppression, and work together with people for liberation. It was a wonderful project—one that I grew from tremendously. I am writing now to share with all of you my current picture of young adult oppression and liberation.

As young people, we come to the world ready for connection, learning, and leadership. Because the adults around us are hurt, we don’t get the connection we expect. We are isolated even from our families, and are further cut off from connection with people outside of our families, including people of different skin colors, class backgrounds, religions, and so on. On top of that, we are given misinformation about the world. We question oppressions like racism, classism, sexism, and anti-Jewish oppression but are told that we are stupid and only questioning them because we “don’t understand the way the world works.” This is part of a pervasive disrespect for our minds and our full humanness.

In important ways we take leadership, giving adults around us chances to get close, play, learn, face big feelings, consider that different things are possible, and regain hope. In many ways, however, our leadership is undermined. We are given few chances to take charge in our lives and mostly must conform to the expectations of our parents and the other adults around us, because we depend on them to meet our basic needs. Although we have a natural process for healing from these hurts, we are largely cut off from being able to use it.

All the while, adulthood is held out as a great escape. We are told that someday, when we become adults, we will get to have someone (albeit just one someone) to be close to; that someday, when we become adults, we will understand things; and that someday, when we become adults, our lives will matter and we will get to make our own choices and do the things we want to do.

Then one day we become adults! And we live happily ever after. Well, okay—maybe not quite so happily ever after. Some things do change. We are treated with more respect. But we still face huge disrespect as young adults. We have more control over our relationships, but we haven’t gotten to discharge our distresses about closeness. We are now told to give up to a large extent on most of our relationships, including with our family and friends, and to focus on finding one relationship with an opposite-sex marriage partner who will meet all of our needs for closeness (the real ones, and the irrational ones frozen from when we didn’t get closeness when we were younger). We have access to good information, but we haven’t gotten to discharge our distresses about learning. We mostly still feel like we’re not smart enough, like someone else knows better than we do. We’re faced with many new things to learn and figure out, usually without good support to do that. We have control over our lives, but mostly we can’t tell1 that this is true. We haven’t gotten to discharge the fears for our survival laid in when we depended on hurt adults to meet our needs, and the oppressive society takes advantage of these survival fears. It sends us a big message: “You’re not there yet. You haven’t made it2 yet. You’re still in danger of not making it. Watch out, or you’ll be left behind. If you want there to be a place for you in this world, you have to. . . .”

And then there’s a list of all the things we have to do in order to “make it”—a list that basically describes all the ways we have to fit into the roles we’ve been trained to play in the oppressive system, including roles of racism, classism, sexism, anti-Jewish oppression, and so on. On top of this, the economic exploitation of young adults presents challenges for making a living,3 and the society continues to tell us, “Move faster . . . faster . . . faster . . . . Work harder . . . harder . . . harder. . . . You should be taking advantage of more opportunities . . . . More . . . more . . . faster . . . . You’re still at risk of not making it.”

Having lived with young people’s oppression for so many years, we feel desperate to “get out.” The oppressive society holds out irrational paths for us to follow and promises that if we follow them, we will get out. In particular, it holds out confusing ideas about how we can have power—for example, by getting rich; gaining status, prestige, and recognition; and controlling people. Because when we were young we were treated as if we were not powerful, this can be very confusing.

When we don’t have access to the discharge and support we need, we struggle to have broad, full, close relationships; to remember our intelligence and think well about the challenges we face; to recognize that we have control over our lives; and to figure out how to act with true power. We often feel pulled to give up on4 our relationships, dreams, and goals and settle for limited lives. We become worried, discouraged, and hopeless. We find it difficult to play and have fun. Often we numb ourselves with drugs, alcohol, food, sex, pornography, television, video games, and other addictions. When we feel things about the oppression or show our struggles, we are told to try on a new identity or take a different path to “success.” In a growing number of cases we are given psychiatric drugs.

Young adult liberation depends on our being given full access to discharge, opportunities for close relationships, contradictions to where we can’t tell that we’re smart, accurate information about the world, and support to act with true power and take leadership to change the oppressive society. As ILRP, my liberation program for young adults focused on this. Several things were particularly useful:

Focusing on young people’s oppression. Young adults often struggle to look at young people’s oppression and to be part of the young people’s liberation movement. After facing that oppression for twenty-one years, we are so ready to be done with it. However, young people’s oppression plays a critical role in our oppression as young adults. Young adult liberation depends on young adults discharging on young people’s oppression.

Focusing on our relationships with each other. Young adults are pushed to give up on full relationships. It becomes harder to tell that we want each other and to openly show caring. It is easy to give up on each other, particularly in the places where we feel bad about how we, or others, have compromised in the face of the oppressive society. It is a key contradiction5 to fight for each other in the places where we’ve given up and to go after6 deep, close relationships with each other.

Focusing on ending racism. Racism is a huge oppression that confuses all of us. We have lost battles to keep from being hurt by it and from playing prescribed roles within the economic and social structure, so we tend to feel discouraged. Taking steps to end racism challenges our chronic distresses and moves our lives forward, and the battles we win as we fight for each other in the context of ending racism give us hope.

Focusing on sexism and Gay oppression. The ways young adults are pushed to take on7 prescribed roles in sexism are pivotal to how oppression comes in and solidifies during our young adult years. Gay oppression is used to hold sexism in place. Those who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer face Gay oppression directly and end up terrified but also knowing that more is possible than the limited roles and relationships offered by sexism. Those who identify as straight face a threat of Gay oppression that often leads to their settling.8 Work on the intersection of sexism and Gay oppression has been important to our having big lives.

Focusing on steps to leadership in RC. Re-evaluation Counseling offers great chances for young adults to act with true power and take leadership to change the oppressive society. It has been important to work with young adults on (1) getting regular Co-Counseling sessions; (2) learning RC fundamentals; (3) becoming solid RC Community members; (4) building strong relationships with older adult RC leaders; and (5) taking steps toward leadership, including organizing events, assisting with classes, leading support groups at workshops, and then teaching RC and building Communities.

The following ideas about RC have been useful:

1) We are living our lives now (not just in the future, which is what the society tells us), and if we want RC in our lives, we get to have it now;

2) Re-evaluation Counseling can be central to our having the meaningful lives we want, and we can set up our lives to have it at the center, long term;

3) The oppressive society does not make space for liberation, and it won’t intentionally make space for RC, yet we can create that space;

4) Although we feel overwhelmed by everything we’re supposed to do as young adults, the basics are simple. If we find a job that allows us to meet our basic needs and not be frozen with terror about money, and if we go to an RC class and have a Co-Counseling session each week, we will figure out the rest; and

5) We’ve made it. We can’t always tell, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’ve made it. We didn’t stick with9 RC by accident, and the oppressive society did not tell us to stick with it. We’ve held on to our minds enough that we are here now. I’m so proud of us for that. We have battles left to fight, but that’s okay. What are left are the exciting battles—ones we want to take on,10 ones we’ll take on together. I’m looking forward to what’s next for us.

As I am now too old for the young adult ILRP job, a new ILRP, Anna Van Heeswijk, will be carrying the work forward. I will still be backing11 the work. I will be sticking with all of you young adults I’ve come to know and love. I will be fighting the remaining battles together with you. I will never leave your side, and I will never stop fighting. You can count12 on that.

Ellie Brown
Wilmington, Delaware, USA

1 In this context, tell means notice, see.
2 Made it means succeeded.
3 Making a living means earning enough money to sustain ourselves.
4 Give up on means abandon.
5 Contradiction to distress
6 Go after means pursue.
7 In this context, take on means adopt.
8 Settling means not trying to reach their full potential for a big life.
9 In this context, stick with means stay committed to.
10 In this context, take on means engage in.
11 Backing means supporting.
12 In this context, count means rely.

Last modified: 2014-10-07 18:30:56+00